Saturday, February 7, 2009


I think it is imperative to this recounting that I relay my expectations of Morocco before the trip in order to truly funnel this reflection. Before this trip I envisioned Morocco as a cross between Israel and Aladdin, a gorgeous Mediterranean feast for the eyes and ears. I envisioned bright colors from fashion magazines and ornate gold shoes and outfits. What I got was sort of a cross between the Arab Market in Israel, Beverly Hills in California and what I can only envision the slums of India to be like. At times, mostly snuggled up in my Riad, I could envision Aladdin and Abu swinging from the roof tops, but those glimpses were few and far between. But, let me explain…

February 2nd, 2009-Morocco/Casablanca/Marakkech/Riad Mur Akesh
We arrived a day late to our second port of call, Casablanca. As we turned the bend to dock they warned us over the PA system that we needed to ‘secure our personal belongings’, they weren’t joking. I pretty much laughed through the whole 10 minute ordeal as things went flying from side to side, off counters, into our sink, onto our floor and the like. Nothing broke, which made us one of the luckier cabins, as we were the exception to the rule.
From the moment Brenden, Julia, Brittany and I walked off the ship, we knew things would be different than Cadiz. For one, we were stationed in a VERY industrial port. We are talking cranes and big tanker ships. Not a luxury cruise in sight. There are two gates to get out to Casablanca about 1 ½ miles altogether. Normally, this would not be that big of deal, however there were a lot of very aggressive taxi cab drivers aching for our commission. We were warned ahead of time not to yield a taxi until you are out of the main gate, however, at the time it was very unclear how far ahead the main gate was. Reluctantly (and clenching our purses) we marched onwards and outwards. When we finally got through the main gate we headed to a local bank to exchange our money (1 dollar=8.4 dirhams). We were also told ahead of time that the train station (to get to Marrakech, our destination) was walkable, so we proceeded to ask everyone in sight for directions. Somehow we ended up going a VERY wrong way, and we ended up in a more peculiar neighborhood, to say the least. We then decided to relent and hire a taxi. We agreed on the price of 50 dirham (a little over 6 dollars) and were on our way. The driver was hilarious but also a little unnerving as he proceeded to offer Brendan cigarettes, Turkish coffee and also a turn at driving. It was one of the many Moroccan moments where the true gravity of the situation was too great to even process, but at the moment it was hilarious.
When we arrived at the train station our driver decided to clarify that it was in fact 50 dirhams each (for about a 10 minute ride), we were new to country, so although we knew we were getting ripped off, we didn’t realize by how much so we paid him begrudgingly. When we got into the station we heard accounts of people being asked to pay over 30 euros! Let’s just say from there forward we were careful to clarify the total amount.
1st class (125 dirham) was sold out, so we went for 2nd (84 dirhams) which did not guarantee you a seat for the 3 ½ hour ride. As we walked out to the terminal, I was ready to elbow my way into a seat (jk, sort of ). All four of us ended up getting a seat in an 8 person cart. I sat next to a woman named Fadoua. She was very friendly, a flight attendant, so she spoke some English. We made small talk for a while and she told us about her small town, even inviting us to come if we could (of course we couldn’t). She said that she felt that women were equal in Morocco (something, I didn’t really see). We watched the country side go by and made small talk for the duration of the travel.
Upon arrival in Marrakech we were greeted by a friendly man, Mohammed, the manager of our Riad. A Riad is an old converted house in Morocco which opens into a courtyard. If you ever find yourself in Morocco or somewhere else that offers these, make sure you book them! They are sort of a Moroccan Bed and Breakfast (more about the breakfast later). Since I had recommended the Riad to others on SAS, Mohammed had offered free transport from the train station for our party. When I saw the very modern looking mini-bus, I was elated. A short ride took us from the modern section of the city to the older medina. The transformation and dichotomy of modernity and antiquity was a constant theme of my Moroccan experience. As we followed Mohammed down an old alleyway with gorgeous oval arches, I once again pictured Aladdin jumping from windowsill to windowsill. The transition from the crowded Medina (think Arab corner in Jerusalem) to the peaceful oasis of our Riad was also breathtaking. Inside the ornate door was ‘a whole new world’. A large courtyard with a table and chairs. A beautiful fountain lining one wall all the way up to the sky (three stories). The other three walls contained open air hallways with more ornate doors leading to guest rooms. Our room, the suite (there were four of us), was at the very top of the Riad. On the same level was also a second patio. On the ground floor courtyard we were greeted by another man who served us home made mint tea and cookies. We took a ton of pictures and marveled at the fact that we were actually in Morocco, as it seemed so surreal. After taking in the sights of the riad we dropped our stuff off and asked for directions to the Souk (the bargainer’s market).
The four of us must of looked like quite a sight clenching our purses as we steadfastly walked through the throngs of people on the very busy street outside our Riad (who would have known so much noise could be occurring so close to our oasis). We passed (and got cut off by) motorcyclists, drivers, donkeys, horses and people. As we turned the corner we were confronted by a huge town square with hundreds of street performers. From snake charmers (seriously, with cobras!) demanding money in exchanges for pictures to henna artists the plaza was full. There were also men with monkeys bellowing for tourists to take their pictures (these both saddened me and freaked me out as the treatment of the monkeys left something to be desired). We immediately decided to stay together and walk into the alleys of the souk (again, think Arab market in Jerusalem). We each had different small souvenirs in mind. For me, I wanted a leather bag, a scarf and a small lantern. (Mom, you will LOVE the lantern, the glass is gorgeous). We walked stall to stall haggling, again getting cut off by donkeys and the like. The shop keepers spoke good English and were not nearly as aggressive as those in Israel. Some were slimy ( Brittany and I got offered a few hundred camels for our hands in marriage), but for the most part the bargaining was fun and fruitful. I got my bag (Ilana we can share!) for 200 dirhams (about 25 dollars), not bad for leather (and boy does it smell like leather!). It is an across the shoulders light brown bag with a beautiful embedded design with stud. I bought a scarf for 70 dirhams (about 8 dollars). It is blue and perfect for the cold weather that we were experiencing. Lastly, the lantern which I had the hardest time bargaining down. They seemed to want way too much money for them and although I really loved them, I couldn’t see spending 400 dirhams on them. After getting lost (we wanted to exit the Souk, which was quite hard, but eventually with the help of a Moroccan man and some dirham we made it out) I bargained a very pretty one down to 100 dirhams. Brittany bought 2 scarves, 2 bags, a lantern and some other misc. things. Julia bought a bag and Brenden bought a Berber flask (boys, go figure). It was altogether a great experience
Pleased with ourselves we headed to the main plaza to find some dinner. We ended up settling on a Moroccan restaurant 3 stories up from the plaza which offered gorgeous views of the chaos below. Brittany and I shared Chicken Tangrine. Upon cutting into it, I immediately realized that this chicken was probably alive earlier that day. It was stringy in texture and had a slightly different taste than what I am used to. A lively conversation ensued about how processed our meat in the United States is and the fact that we never really have fresh meat. The chicken was served with sweet potato and apricots and was quite good. However, I am pretty sure I can peg this meal as the reason that I couldn’t hold food down for the next two days (I am fine now and it didn’t really affect my trip, mom, so don’t worry!).
The meal was super yummy and he brought us orange slices with cinnamon for dessert. We ordered some mint tea as it was all of our favorite from earlier that day. As I sipped my tea and looked out at the chaos below it hit me that I was truly expiring a whole new culture. This ship and semester is just so amazing in its ability to put you in situations that you could never have imagined, such as what happened next.
As we strolled back through the plaza, Brenden remarked that he had always heard that they ate sheep’s head in Morocco. Playfully, we all dared him to eat it, if we could find some. A whole section of the plaza was dedicated to little food stations and stands. There were hundreds of stands with VERY aggressive people looking for your patronage. We finally found one which would let all of us sit. I could not believe it as Brenden at the nose of the poor sheep (dad, don’t read!), but when he moved on the brain, I’m pretty sure Julia and I wanted to run away. Brittany even tried a little brain, but I was way too scared.
It was getting dark as we walked around a little more. Some guy tried to pickpocket me (I didn’t have pockets-thank you money belt!) which freaked me out but thankfully nothing was lost. Brenden wanted to check out a DVD store along the plaza so we made that our final destination. Counterfeit DVDs are the norm, not the exception in Morocco. With our purchases in hand we decided to head back to the Riad. We walked quickly and cautiously through the chaos, smiling when we managed to locate the correct ally to our riad (they all looked the same). We unloaded our bags and headed back down stairs to discuss our day over more mint tea. The other SASers came back from their adventures and we all exchanged stories before heading to bed.
February 3rd 2009-Marrakech/
We woke up bright and early, but unfortunately the sky was not as bright as we headed down to breakfast. I knew breakfast was included based on my many conversations with Maria, the booking agent, however I did not know what exactly would be in store. A gorgeously made table on the ground floor was the perfect initiation to our meal. Mohammed outdid himself with homemade Orange Juice, Coffee and Tea. There was cheese and breakfast crepes. Homemade delectable treats abounded. I loved the crepes (of course carbs) and since this was really the first meal I wasn’t feeling up to eating I stuck to those and orange juice. Yum!
We said goodbye to Brenden, who was staying an extra night with the other SASers (we had dinner with a Moroccan family that night so we had to return to Casablanca) and departed for the botanical gardens. Finding a taxi was quite easy and this driver kept his word of a 20 dirham fare. He offered to stay at the gardens while we walked around for an extra 40 dirhams, but there seemed to be other taxis around, so we departed towards the grounds. The gardens were gorgeous despite the rain (I had my AEPHI anorak). The trail was paved in deep sepia, the plants green with pots in blues and yellows. Unfortunately, due to the ship, I can’t upload pictures, but take my word for it, they were gorgeous. Yves Saint Laurent donated a lot of money to the garden and thus her name was prominently displayed. The botanical gardens are just another example of the dichotomy of beauty and poverty in morocco. In the gift shop, Brittany bought a vintage photo and Julia bought a book on Moroccan decorating. I sat next to another fountain and daydreamed about the beauty that was surrounding me.
From the garden we headed to the train station where we were able to purchase 1st class train tickets. I was skeptical at first, but for only 5 dollars the idea of a marked seat convinced me. We sat with two other SASers, Amanda and Paige in a MUCH nicer cabin. Each of us had our own seat (rather than bench) and I was actually able to nap for much of the ride.
The big adventure came after the train ride, however. We hailed a cab close to the station and showed him a little pamphlet which was supposed to direct him to our part of the port. Either he hated us or was just confused, because he dropped us off in a VERY sketchy part of the port. There were throngs of port workers, all men, howling and cat calling us. This was another moment when the true gravity of the danger was too much to even process. We were probably 1-2 miles away from the right part of the port on a very industrial road with only men. Clutching our bags and envisioning the crushing sound of my lantern against an intruder as we walked straight faced through it all. Thank goodness we made it back to the right part of the port and back to the ship, because I can truly say that was one of the scariest experiences of my life. I am not sure if we were actually in danger but at the time it seemed overarching.
As Brittany and I made it to our room and said goodbye to Julia, all we could do was laugh at the bizarreness of what had just occurred. But there was a very bright side, we had made it! We were independent, we traveled in a VERY foreign country and remained unscathed, with all our belongings intact. Plus, we were about to embark on another great adventure for we had signed up for Dinner with a Moroccan Family.
I had no real idea as to what ‘Dinner with a Moroccan Family’would entail, except, obviously a meal. Before we arrived in Morocco, I purchased 4 postcards and a plastic cup from the school store for my Moroccan family. I thought we would be maybe traveling by bus to a village or something. Maybe we would be asked to help with the cooking. Instead, we were asked to make groups ranging from 2 people to 6. Brittany and I made a group with the Assistant Dean Luc and his family(wife Melinda, daughters Lily (9 months) and Abby (3 years old)). The group leader pointed out our family to us, a man and his wife, in their forties. Brittany and I walked with the man towards the paved part of the port. He clicked his keys and an E-class Mercedes was quickly illuminated, blue on blue. Pleasantly surprised, Brittany and I climbed in, myself in the front seat with Brittany in the back. Luc and his family went with his wife. The ride was certainly another adventure as he proceeded to show us each and every feature of the car, which he announced cost over 100,000 US dollars. He stopped a few times to show us a car dealership, a mosque and some other sites while showing off the horsepower of the car, at times down the middle of the road, quite literally. Laughing off our nerves Brittany and I once again made it unscathed at their apartment. Up the elevator we went, only to arrive at a gorgeous flat. It was decorated in a Moroccan fashion, red and gold, with a gorgeous dining room lined with cushions. Abby announced that she wanted to watch TV while Mel put Lily to sleep. Leila, our hostess, promptly brought out a counterfeit copy of Ice-Age, in English, announcing that counterfeit was the only way she could purchase it. We got to know our host and hostess while three housekeepers stayed in the kitchen to cook. Leila told us how after her first husband was killed in a car accident she had to move back in with her father, since he did not want a single women with two kids (who now go to engineering school in the states) to live alone. She talked a lot about the position of women, which I found fascinating since I have to write about it for my Military Force class. She discussed how when she first met Muhammad (our host) he was very direct in asking her out, even though that is not how things were done. They have now been married over 8 years!
Our family could not have been friendlier and it was very nice to spend quality time with Luc and his family. In the SAS promotional video, they recount how the relationship between professors and students is so different on the voyage because of the unique situations that it brings one into.
I asked Leila if she had any Coca-Cola Light (Jimmy-you would be proud!), she said she didn’t but would ‘send out for it’. I told her that was totally unnecessary, however, 30 minutes later, I was offered some. After such a rough experience by the port, this dinner rekindled my love of Morocco. From the gorgeous multi-course meal (more tangine, lamb with apricots and nuts, couscous, a gorgeous caramelized desert, Moroccan wine(very tart), and fried triangles with rice) to the commonalities between us, it was an amazing experience. They were Muslim, but recounted how religion should be private and seemed very progressive. Another family joined us with more SASers and as the group grew so did the fun and the laughter. Brittany befriend these two young boys and they discussed school and whatnot. I was sad when we had to leave and all of us (luc and his family, britt and I) went with Mohammed in his car. How Melanie did not have a melt down during the drive was pretty impressive as I held onto Abby in lieu of a seatbelt. Brittany and I returned home, tired and quickly went to sleep.
February 4th 2009 Casablanca
Our original plan had been to walk around Casablanca and maybe visit a mosque on our last day. However, after the port incident we were unsure of ourselves and without Brenden or a male we were even more nervous. We had heard that if SAS day trips don’t sell out, it is possible to hop on them last minute. Despite the fact that we each had about 200 dirhams left we decided to hop on the ‘Service Visit’to an orphanage and an American school. As we boarded the bus, we weren’t sure if we had made the right decision, but decided to go for it anyway. We sat behind The Thompson’s, the leaders of the trip and their three children. We quickly got to chatting with them as we drove along the Oceanside. It was very apparent as to why the ship had been so rocky when we saw huge waves upon huge waves. I have never seen anything like that! It was very windy, but from the view of our bus, it was unreal.
Our first stop was the George Washington Academy, the largest American school outside of the United States, they have campuses all over the world. We ate lunch in their cafeteria, I could only hold down a small pudding at that point, but I still enjoyed conversing with Moroccan students in their perfect English. Most of the individuals who attend GWA are middle class or wealthy and plan to attend university in the states. While this was interesting, the highlight was the next stop, the orphanage.

Just a few miles away sat the SOS Orphanage. It was created along with a slew of others across the globe after WWII. It is set up so that one ‘Mother’has 9 children. She also has a helper ‘Aunt’every so often. She gets a stipend with which to take care of the children and gets one day off a week. We didn’t get to meet any of the mothers but we saw quite a few children. They seemed immensely happy as we watched in on their dance class and singing class. Their smiles were invigorating. It was more of a tour then service visit and another highlight was an impromptu concert by a young boy with a drum. He seemed to love to pose for the camera and was also a smiler. The children did not speak English, rather they learned French and Arabic. I found this visit very enlightening as it was yet again another side of morocco.

I could feel the 250 dirhams aching in my money belt, unsure if they would be able to be used. Before we left, I donated 100 of them to the women in charge of the orphanage and hurried back to the bus. We still had an hour and half before we needed to be back at the ship and the bus was still in commission. Somehow Brittany and I managed to convince the Thompson’s to inquire with the driver and the rest of the bus about stopping at a Supermarket. Of course everyone on the bus was pretty excited about the opportunity to get some snacks for the ship and we were on our way. We ended up at a nice ‘Supermercado’, where we all stocked up on food for the next week. It was a great finish as I was able to get Diet Coke and other goodies and finish off my money.

We returned to boat in time to drop off our passport, unload our goodies and secure our items for some more rocking.

Morocco was an amazing adventure. It was truly a dichotomous trip from the beauty of the riad to the poverty of the Medina. I don’t know if I would go back so soon, but the experience is one I will always cherish and I know I am stronger and more cultured for it.


  1. Wow, reading your travel blog is like reading a good book. Have a wonderful time, be safe and can't wait to read more.

    Carolyn in Louisiana

  2. Hello Elyssa. This is Maria, the owner of Riad Mur Akush, where you stayed in Marrakech. I am glad that you enjoyed your stay with us and good to hear that Mohamed and Hassan took good care of you. You are living through a wonderful adventure and cannot wait to read about the rest of your trip. By best wishes are with you and the rest of your team. X Maria